The subject of missing children is as emotive as it gets. Almost every parent or guardian I’ve encountered has at least one story to tell when they became aware that their child or children weren’t where they were meant to be. Often this heart-stopping nightmare is over in mere minutes, but on some occasions those minutes can stretch into hours, days, months or sometimes years. You’d imagine that the latter were rare, however when I was researching the subject for my new book Strange Tricks, I found the statistics published by the UK Missing Persons Unit (part of the National Crime Agency) particularly unsettling. In 2018/2019, for example, there were 75,918 children recorded missing by UK police forces and 218,707 incidents (some children go missing several times a year).
Drilling down into this statistic I was comforted to learn that over half of these 200K plus cases closed within eight hours. Of the rest 80% were resolved within 24 hours. But that year there were also 1,514 children recorded as long-term missing. Generally this means that they have been gone for longer than 28 days. These cases can remain open for a significant amount of time: around 50% actually refer to children who disappeared before that year and were still not found. That’s around 750 children.
This did not seem like an inconsiderable number. In fact, it made me wonder - if so many children went missing like this, on a regular basis, why did we not see more appeals across the media? We all remember the tragedies of Madeleine McCann and Sarah Payne, the press conferences, parental appeals and media coverage that followed every harrowing step of those investigations. But what of Alexander Sloley, aged sixteen, who went missing in 2008? Eleven-year-old Abdu Abdo not seen since September 2017. Or Carmel Fenech, a sixteen-year-old, who failed to return home to Crawley in May 1998?
Like many crime writers I am lucky enough to have a 'source' in the police force who was able to enlighten me. 'When a child is reported missing,' she told me, 'you have to assess what level of risk of harm they fall into. There are three – low, medium and high. The higher the risk, the more quickly officers act.' My source explained, 'Nothing is taken for granted. You have to search the homes of missing children, as sometimes they might be hiding in the loft or the shed. They're children – they do that kind of thing. If they're not there you then have to ask lots of questions about the state of the home. If the children are happy there and see if there are any other red flags. We're now aware of grooming. So we have to find out if the missing child has been given gfts, or makeup, if they seem to have more money, if there has been a change in their behaviour or mood? You then have to move on to see there are any persons of interest in the area who might have something to do with the disappearance. Quite often this way you can locate a child. But obviously, it doesnt work all the time. Another of the key factors, with regards to ramping up the case, is the child's aaage. The younger the child, the more likely you might go to a CRA. Then information will be released to the public via traditional media and social media in the hope that this will lead to the safe recovery of the child'.
The CRA stands for Child Rescue Alert. This is a system run by the National Crime Agency, based on the American 'Amber Alert'. It was first piloted by Sussex Police following the abduction and murder of Sarah Payne and is pretty much a partnership between the police, the media and the puvblic. Its intention is to alert the public to the abduction or other high-risk disappearance as quickly as possible.
So why isn't it applied more often? Well, it seems that the British public are fickle – it has been concluded that an increase deployment of the CRA is likely to lead to oversaturation. It must, therefore, be used sparingly and only in the most problematic of cases.
In many cases, once questions have been asked and answers gleaned it appears that some children have chosen to go missing. 'Looked after children (in Local Authority care), are of the highest risk of being reported missing. 1 in 10 looked after children are reported missing compared to 1 in 200 children.
The reason for children leaving home also vary. More than half of missing children have experienced conflict, abuse and neglect at home and 1 in 5 (later located) have said that they have felt forced to leave (Missingpeople.org.uk). Other reasons include mental health issues, abuse, domestic violence or child sexual exploitation.
It is a sad state of affairs but the 'voluntary' nature of their disappearance does contextualise those shocking statistics. Though there still persists a cause for concern – although most cases are solved, the children found and returned to safety, a minority never are. And even more disssturbing than that – some who disappear are never reported missing after all.
For more information on the subject please visit Missingpeople.org.uk
Strange Tricks by Syd Moore (Oneworld Publications) Out Now
Secretly Rosie Strange has always thought herself a little bit more interesting than most people - the legacy her family has bequeathed her is definitely so, she's long believed. But then life takes a peculiar turn when the Strange legacy turns out not just to be the Essex Witch Museum, but perhaps some otherworldly gifts that Rosie finds difficult to fathom. Meanwhile Sam Stone, Rosie's curator, is oddly distracted as breadcrumb clues into what happened to his missing younger brother and other abducted boys from the past are poised to lead him and Rosie deep into a dark wood where there lurks something far scarier than Hansel and Gretel's witch...